Anthony is one of the desert fathers that Nouwen uses as an example of compassionate ministry. Anthony lived in isolation for most of his adult life. Late in life he returned to community for brief periods: once to minister to those suffering persecution and another time to preach against a heresy taking root in the church. Often during his time in the desert people would come to visit him and seek advice. For more information on Anthony click here. It is Anthony’s example that Nouwen uses as the basis for compassionate ministry. The ability to provide spiritual advice flows from the ability to identify with the situation of the person seeking counsel. The greatest gift of a minister according to Nouwen is “to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.”
Nouwen contends that we need compassion to set aside judgement, because judgement creates distance between people. Judgement limits compassion. Maybe this quote sums up this section best.
What becomes visible here is that solitude molds self-righteous people into gentle, caring, forgiving persons who are so deeply convinced of their own great sinfulness and so fully aware of God’s even greater mercy that their life itself becomes ministry. – The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen (page 22)
So, solitude leads to compassion. Compassion draws us back into community. In community, our selflessness and connection with God are what is needed, and become ministry to others.
Oxygen and the air pressure are always being monitored. In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. Keep your mask on until a uniformed crew member advises you to remove it. (from https://airodyssey.net/reference/inflight/#safety)
What does the oxygen mask announcement have to do with solitude and compassionate ministry? I think Nouwen in this section of the book is equating solitude with the oxygen mask on an airplane. It is essential for our survival, which is essential for us to be able to minister to others. He firmly believes that only solitude will lead us to the place where we recognize our total dependence on God. When we recognize that we are totally dependent on God we will then be able to enter into the suffering of others and this is what Nouwen defines as compassion. Nouwen’s assumption is that effective ministry is compassionate ministry.
Is compassion enough? I struggle with that. Compassion may allow me to enter into a relationship with someone to share in their suffering. Jesus was the most compassionate person who ever lived. He never stopped at compassion. His compassion always resulted in action and action that helped. Jesus always had His oxygen mask on. He was always connected to the Holy Spirit and never at risk of suffocating in the suffering of another.
Is Paul addressing this same concept when he writes to the Corinthians.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7 ESV)
There are times when we all need to be comforted, and at those times, compassion is appropriate and appreciated. There are also times when we need to be confronted, when we need help. We need someone who has their oxygen mask on to help us get ours on, so that we can breathe again.
Compassion is an essential element in effective ministry. Is compassion only achievable through extended times of solitude? Is compassion all that is needed for effective ministry?
What do you think?